Penn Program Encourages Philadelphia High School Students to 'Tech It Out'
Last fall, Stefano Yushinski, now an incoming freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, built and programmed his first robot. He, along with about 50 other Philadelphia high school students, was participating in a one-day event through a program called Tech It Out Philly.
It was designed to introduce the students to different topics in computer science such as web development, robotics, circuitry and hardware. Before then, Yushinski said, he hadn’t put much thought into where he wanted to go to college or even what he wanted to major in.
The event inspired him to sign up for an eight-week immersion course through the program in which he and 14 other high school students designed websites centered around social issues important to them. The students split into groups of two or three and received guidance from Penn student mentors.
Yushinski and the other students in his group decided to build their website around homophobia and its interplay with areas such as politics and religion. The experience not only inspired him to pursue a major in computer science but also to apply to Penn.
It even led him and his friends to start a STEM club in their high school.
Tech It Out was founded two years ago by alumnus Amelia Goodman, then a sophomore in the Department of Computer and Information Science in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science as well as a gender-studies major in the School of Arts & Sciences. It started as a one-day event but evolved into an eight-week course to allow the students the opportunity to learn more about the topics they’re introduced to during the event.“Most of our students have never had any experience with computer science,” Goodman said, “so my biggest hope is that they want to keep learning afterwards.”
Goodman decided to pursue a career in computer science because it gives her the opportunity to build things.
“It kind of opened up this world for me of being able to see a problem and fix it,” she said. “I think that lends itself really well to social change because the internet allows for this platform that the students really don't have access to anywhere else. They can reach a huge amount of people and know that their voices are really making a difference.”
The course meets for two hours every Sunday, and the students learn skills required to build and maintain websites. It culminates in a launch party where the students get to show off their projects to friends and family.
Siddharth Deliwala, the Undergraduate Lab manager in Penn Engineering, donated a space for the group to use once a week. Rita Powell, the associate director in the Department of Computer and Information Science, helped the Penn students with logistics and funding throughout the entire program. Other professors attend the launch parties and support the students.
“I think the goal is two parts,” Goodman said. “The first is to introduce the students to computer science and show them that they can be part of a field where no one really looks like them. The second is to allow them to have this voice of social impact and social change and empower them to continue doing this activist work, maybe even through computer science.”One project that stood out to Goodman was a website one of the students made about homelessness.
“She was able to tell her own story about how she was homeless for a little while,” Goodman said, “and felt empowered by being able to share this on the website and have anyone on the internet read it.”
Another group of students, all of whom identify as part of the LGBTQ community, chose to build a website about LGBTQ rights. One of the students was not yet out to her parents, so the group worked together to address that.
Seven of Tech It Out’s female students also participated in FemmeHacks, an all-women hackathon hosted at Penn. Three of them ended up winning a prize for their project.
“They're getting involved in the Philly tech community,” Goodman said. “Participating in a hackathon is pretty intimidating, and the fact that they were all happy to do it was really awesome.”
When Yushinski comes to Penn in the fall, he will continue participating in the program but this time as a coach.
“This program is very valuable,” Yushinksi said. “Not only does it bring together a community of diverse high school students, it also helps them develop skills in STEM. Every day technology is advancing, and we need people to keep up with it and to push it further."